The Epistle for August 30 (August 17 OS)
Monday of the 11th Week after Pentecost
2 Corinthians 2:14-3:3
14 Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. 15 For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. 1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? 2 You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3 clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.
There is much to learn from today’s Epistle reading. The Fathers of the Church wrote on it with some frequency, often discussing the “fragrance” or how a Christian can be both the aroma of death and life. But I want to focus on three words. They may seem innocuous to an Orthodox Christian, but for those raised in protestant evangelical circles, they likely seem confounding. Those three words, found in Verse 15, are “are being saved.”
Now, the protestant world has no concept of an active process of ongoing salvation. In their world, salvation is an instantaneous occurrence, usually tied to “accepting Christ as your personal Savior,” and an irrevocable bond, what they call “eternal security.” Salvation happens, and then cannot be lost. But this is a modern, feel good doctrine unknown to Christianity for over a millennium. Indeed, the Orthodox and the scriptural understanding of salvation is that of an ongoing process which is marked by work, struggle and endurance. Ah, the word “work” – how the protestants cringe. “Works” can’t save. And they are right of course. We can never merit salvation on our own efforts. We must rely on the grace and mercy of our Lord to cover our human inadequacy. But being saved by works and working out your salvation are two entirely different things. And the idea that faith, once expressed, alone, or a solitary act of acknowledgment assures us that we will be granted God’s mercy is simply in error.
St. James tell us:
“14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-18)
Now, to be sure, the Orthodox understanding of salvation as an ongoing process of cooperation between man and God is scary. It is not nearly as comforting (or comfortable) as believing that a few words uttered one Sunday morning have merited you eternal life. But St. Paul warns us that one must must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12). And Christ Himself directly warns that salvation is not a one time, assured event.
“12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. 13 But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matthew 24:12-14).
We are all called to be transformed by Christ, to put Him on, and to become perfected in Him. The Apostle Paul wrote “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). But salvation is a process. Indeed, Paul tells the Corinthians this in his first epistle as well. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18). As Deacon Victor Klimenko writes:
One can get closer to or farther from salvation: “…Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Romans 13:11). Striving to become righteous, one can progress through various degrees: “…Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Christ links entering the kingdom of heaven – that is, eternal salvation – to the level of righteousness one is able to acquire.[i]
Salvation in Orthodox theology is an ongoing process of theosis, drawing closer and closer to God, that we may participate in his Divine Energies. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We cooperate with God in our sacramental life, undertaking Baptism, partaking of the Holy Eucharist, and receiving the mystery of confession and repentance. We hope, through his merciful love for man, to receive his Grace within us. “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:4). But our cooperative work toward our salvation does not end at the door of the Church. We must emulate Christ, showing love and mercy to our neighbors, glorifying the Father, and conducting ourselves in prayerful humility.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). The Apostle Paul assures the Galatians that if they endure to the end, they will reap heavenly rewards. This is indeed our calling to live out our faith in Christ. “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.“ (Romans 2:6-9). It may be comforting to believe that simply “asking Christ to come into your heart” will save you. But what a dangerous path to put a new Christian on. In his epistles, the Apostle Paul uses the verb “to save” in the past tense, the present tense, and the future tense.[ii] This is why an Orthodox Christian might reply, when asked if he is saved, “I was saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.”
We are called to endure to the end. There will be sacrifices and tribulations. There will be stumblings, falling downs and getting back ups. This is the life of a Christian. The path is narrow and the demons beset us round about. By faith, we are given the strength to endure, to struggle and to work out our salvation. By our works, our love for neighbor, and our steadfast trust in the Lord, we show the first fruits of a faith not dead. And having endured, we trust in the rich mercy of our Father who desires that no man perish, but that we turn from sin and live.
O Lord, at Thy final judgment, let us not be accounted among the goats. But by your tender mercy, accept our prayers and supplications and let us not stand condemned before Thee. Though by our own merits we have not earned our salvation, vouchsafe unto us, your Divine Grace and number us with the good thief together with you in Paradise.